8 IRS Audit Flags
8 IRS Audit Flags That Will Likely Trigger an IRS Tax Audit. Information on your tax return is matched to external sources like 1099 and W2. There’s no sure way to avoid an IRS audit, but these red flags could increase your chances of drawing unwanted attention from the IRS.
Thankfully, the odds that your tax return will be singled out for an audit are pretty low. The IRS audited only 0.4% of all individual tax returns in 2019 (down from 0.59% in 2018). Plus, the vast majority of these exams were conducted by mail, which means that most taxpayers never met with an IRS agent in person. That’s good news.
The bad news is that your chances of being audited or otherwise hearing from the IRS increase because of one of these 8 IRS Audit Flags (sometimes significantly) if there are certain “red flags” in your return. For instance, the IRS is more likely to eyeball your return if you claim certain tax breaks, your deduction or credit amounts are unusually high, you’re engaged in certain businesses, or you own foreign assets. Math errors could also draw an extra look from the IRS, but they usually don’t lead to a full-blown exam. In the end, though, there’s no sure way to predict an IRS audit, but these 8 red flags could certainly increase your chances of unwanted attention from the IRS. Listen to your accountant, they have been there before.
Failing to Report All Taxable Income
The IRS gets copies of all the 1099s and W-2s you receive, so be sure you report all required income on your return. IRS computers are pretty good at matching the numbers on the forms with the income shown on your return. A mismatch sends up a red flag and causes the IRS computers to spit out a bill. If you receive a 1099 showing income that isn’t yours or listing incorrect income, get the issuer to file a correct form with the IRS.
Report all income sources on your 1040 return, whether or not you receive a form such as a 1099. For example, if you get paid for walking dogs, tutoring, driving for Uber or Lyft, giving piano lessons, or selling crafts through Etsy, the money you receive is taxable.
Making a Lot of Money
The strangest of the 8 IRS Audit Flags is high income. The overall individual audit rate may only be about one in 250 returns, but the odds increase as your income goes up (especially if you have business income). IRS statistics for 2019 show that individuals with incomes between $200,000 and $1 million who file a Schedule C had a 1% audit rate (one out of every 100 returns examined). If you report $1 million or more of income, there’s a one-in-41 chance your return will be audited.
We’re not saying you should try to make less money — everyone wants to be a millionaire. You just need to understand that the more income shown on your return, the more likely it is that the IRS will be knocking on your door.
Taking Higher-than-Average Deductions or Credits
If the deductions or credits on your return are disproportionately large compared with your income, the IRS may pull want to take a second look at your return. But if you have the proper documentation for your deduction or credit, don’t be afraid to claim it. Don’t ever feel like you have to pay the IRS more tax than you actually owe.
Taking Large Charitable Deductions
We all know that charitable contributions definitely going to fall under the umbrella of the 8 IRS Audit Flags. They are a great write-off and help you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. However, if your charitable deductions are disproportionately large compared with your income, it raises a red flag.
That’s because the IRS knows what the average charitable donation is for folks at your income level. Also, if you don’t get an appraisal for donations of valuable property, or if you fail to file IRS Form 8283 for noncash donations over $500, you become an even bigger audit target. And if you’ve donated a conservation or façade easement to a charity, chances are good that you’ll hear from the IRS. Be sure to keep all your supporting documents, including receipts for cash and property contributions made during the year.
Running a Sole Proprietorship
Schedule C is a treasure trove of tax deductions for self-employed people. But it’s also a gold mine for IRS agents, who know from experience that self-employed people sometimes claim excessive deductions and don’t report all their income. The IRS looks at both higher-grossing sole proprietorships and smaller ones. Sole proprietors reporting at least $100,000 of gross receipts on Schedule C, cash-intensive businesses (taxis, car washes, bars, hair salons, restaurants and the like), and business owners who report a substantial loss have a higher audit risk.
Claiming Rental Losses
The passive loss rules usually prevent the deduction of rental real estate losses, but there are two important exceptions. First, if you actively participate in the renting of your property, you can deduct up to $25,000 of loss against your other income. This $25,000 allowance phases out as adjusted gross income exceeds $100,000 and disappears entirely once your AGI reaches $150,000. A second exception applies to real estate professionals who spend more than 50% of their working hours and over 750 hours each year materially participating in real estate as developers, brokers, landlords or the like. They can write off rental losses.
The IRS actively scrutinizes large rental real estate losses, especially those written off by taxpayers claiming to be real estate pros. It’s pulling returns of individuals who claim they are real estate professionals and whose W-2 forms or other non-real estate Schedule C businesses show lots of income. Agents are checking to see whether these filers worked the necessary hours, especially in cases of landlords whose day jobs are not in the real estate business.
Writing Off a Loss for a Hobby
Sorry to inform you, but you’re a prime audit target and part of the 8 IRS Audit Flags
if you report multiple years of losses on Schedule C, run an activity that sounds like a hobby, and have lots of income from other sources.
To be eligible to deduct a loss, you must be running the activity in a business-like manner and have a reasonable expectation of making a profit. If your activity generates profit three out of every five years (or two out of seven years for horse breeding), the law presumes that you’re in business to make a profit, unless the IRS establishes otherwise. Be sure to keep supporting documents for all expenses.
Deducting Business Meals, Travel and Entertainment
Big deductions for meals and travel taken on Schedule C by business owners are always ripe for audit. A large write-off will set off alarm bells, especially if the amount seems too high for the business.
Agents are on the lookout for personal meals or claims that don’t satisfy the strict substantiation rules. To qualify for meal deductions, you must keep detailed records that document for each expense the amount, place, people attending, business purpose, and nature of the discussion or meeting. Also, you must keep receipts for expenditures over $75 or for any expense for lodging while traveling away from home. Without proper documentation, your deduction is toast. It’s a sure bet that IRS examiners will also check that business owners aren’t deducting entertainment expenses such as golf fees or sports tickets for a client outing. The 2017 tax reform law eliminated the deduction for entertainment expenses.